After Dark and the future of public debate

“The best studio discussion format ever created” – The Financial Times, 23 August 1995

In 2017 calls continue for the return to UK screens of the innovative television programme After Dark, despite it not having been on air since 2003 (the most recent such call was at the Westminster seminar ‘The Unreality of Reality TV’, 3 March 2017). What are the reasons – and are they valid? Sebastian Cody, responsible for After Dark throughout its history, argues in this media-critical response that the After Dark format is no longer fit for purpose, and proposes an alternative approach.

Thirty years ago a new kind of television show was launched in Britain. After Dark, a discussion programme, started as an experiment for the then newly-established Channel 4, late on the evening of May Day 1987, based on an idea developed first by Austrian state broadcasting and never equalled since. A small group of guests, all of whom knew a lot about a topic in the news, met in agreeable and informal surroundings and just talked, freely and for as long as they wanted. After Dark quickly earned strong audiences[1] and a remarkable spread of critical enthusiasm, from the Socialist Worker and the Guardian, to the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, to more media focussed journals such as the BFI’s Sight & Sound and even the US showbiz bible Variety in its review of the year[2].

The programme eventually ran for ninety editions[3], including a transfer in 2003 to the BBC. The guests came from all sections of society[4]. Housewives, prison officers and schoolchildren – and, on the very first programme, a Welsh hill farmer[5] – mixed on equal terms with the famous as well as some who might never have appeared on any other kind of television[6].

What was behind the long-lasting success of a format which began tentatively and without many expectations? What lessons can be learned? And is the programme still relevant today, in our rather different contemporary media and political culture?

The Austrian invention[7] was deceptively simple yet it effectively exposed and challenged the prevailing weaknesses of monopolistic broadcasting systems. The prerequisites for each After Dark discussion, though seemingly straightforward, concealed powerful weapons which led, first, to the programme’s success and then to a variety of controversies including numerous clashes with politicians, special-interest groups and indeed Channel 4’s own executives. Two aspects of this unique format suggest why.


“Nicaragua”. 6 August 1988. Bianca Jagger, social and human rights advocate

One of the programme’s unshakeable principles was that After Dark is always live, really live, the discussion being transmitted as it takes place, without prerecording or delay. This is rarer than one might think, “live” being a word broadcasters use with promiscuous frequency to describe everything from theatrical events recorded long in advance to political debate edited before transmission. For example, the BBC’s Question Time – on air when After Dark started in 1987 and still going today – while pre-recorded still claims, disappointingly, that it is “live”.[8] The BAFTA TV Awards were transmitted this year with a seven second delay, just in case anything “dodgy” was said in the heat of the moment.[9] But After Dark was actually live, whatever the consequences. What the guests said was transmitted. No delay, no editing, no hidden manipulation, and no censorship: what one might call freedom of speech.

Second, After Dark was an open-ended programme: the conversation continued, not only past the point when TV normally interrupts the flow with the words “I am sorry, we’ll have to leave it there, we have no more time”, but past the point when the guests had said what they had come to say. What they said then, often in response to listening to others they met on the programme, could become exceptionally interesting (and at other times it was, in the words of a former Channel 4 board member, “a load of old waffle”[10]).

We made programmes about familiar British issues (or ‘diseases’, as we called them): the treatment of children, of the mentally ill, of prisoners, and about class, cash and racial and sexual difference. Several programmes were concerned with matters of exceptional sensitivity to the then Thatcher government, such as state secrecy or the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Places further afield but just as important – Chile, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Nicaragua, South Africa and Russia – featured regularly, as did programmes explicitly about the pressures history puts on the present (After Dark noted anniversaries as various as the Second World War and the death of Freud)[11].


“Britain – Out on a Limb?” 10 June 1989. Sir Edward Heath, former British Prime Minister

Less apparently solemn subjects – sport, fashion, gambling, pop music – were in the mix from the start and turned out to be more serious than viewers might have expected. During a discussion about sex, the programme introduced the physically unappealing Anthony Burgess to the equally charming (and equally sex obsessed) Andrea Dworkin, in the observant presence of a third writer, transgender rights activist Roz Kaveney[12]. Other remarkable encounters saw the father of the H-bomb Edward Teller concede that he lobbied for the worst of all weapons because of what the Russians had done to his country[13]; Nikola Koljević admit Serb concentration camps in Bosnia in 1993[14]; a hangman declare, in the presence of a judge yearning for the return of the death penalty, that if authorised he would happily kill another guest, a former IRA man[15]; and the one-time Baader-Meinhof terrorist Silke Maier-Witt confess she could no longer remember why she had done what she did[16].

In amongst the exceptional and the celebrated, the stars and the scandalous, quieter folk often triumphed. Those who had written to us with a story to tell or who had been discovered through diligent research found that the format allowed them a voice, despite strong competition. Though maybe as late as an hour or more into the programme, they could nonetheless re-shape the discussion and might well trump the polished assertions of more professional experts. One astute viewer calls this ‘deliberative democracy’.[17]

Then there was one programme which included film actor Oliver Reed, clips of whose appearance continue to turn up, often out of context. The After Dark in question, made during the 1991 Gulf War, was titled ‘Do Men Have To Be Violent?’[18] (triggered by the British army’s decision to deploy women on the front line). Oliver Reed had just won a libel action against a tabloid newspaper, which had erroneously claimed he beat his wife. In the light of Mr Reed’s success in the courts we invited him to discuss male violence on our programme, where he got famously sloshed but perhaps not quite as much as viewers may have thought (or as other guests had been – the drinking record was held by philosopher AJ Ayer[19]). Simon Reed – Mr Reed’s brother, also his manager and agent – sat with us backstage and told us he had no concerns about any apparent drunkenness. His brother was just “playing up”, perhaps because he felt uncomfortable in the presence of “intellectuals”.

This edition of After Dark subsequently became notorious, not primarily because of Mr Reed (other After Dark guests had been at least as disruptive[20]) but because a hoax phone call persuaded a junior Channel 4 executive to stop transmitting the live programme, an interruption previously unknown in the history of British network television. Our programme resumed once Channel 4 discovered their mistake, with Mr Reed still participating (he left of his own accord some time later)[21].


“Money”. 13 August 1988. Social psychologist Marie Jahoda, real estate magnate Nicholas van Hoogstraten and that week’s host Henry Kelly

As this example demonstrates After Dark was something of a high wire act, exhausting to put together, with many an excitement before[22], during and sometimes even after transmission, but a source of pride to the dozens of skilled professionals responsible. Some report never again being able to deal so fairly with contributors to television programmes[23].

But at the height of the programme’s success, in 1991, “to the surprise and frustration of many, Channel 4 announced the series’ retirement”[24]. The subsequent furore was substantial, even earning After Dark a mention in a leading article in The Times[25]. In response we warned that After Dark’s “loss poses such a threat to broadcasting freedom. It is…the only television programme whose guests were not straitjacketed into a fixed time-slot, subjected to precensorship or editing, or confronted with a celebrity host and a noisy studio audience”[26]. That year and on through the 1990s we argued, loudly, that After Dark should be put back on air, it being an effective and necessary corrective to the limitations and excessive controls created by the mass broadcasting of those days.

Such warnings may seem an over-reaction on our part, but consider what followed. First Channel 4 tried other discussion formats (with vanishingly small success[27]). Then in the year 2000 – and this is no small thing – Channel 4 bought Big Brother.

After Dark – which some say had a few of the characteristics of “reality television” long before that dubious description was coined – has sometimes been blamed for Big Brother and what followed. This is both fair and unfair. Big Brother was not invented in the UK and its inventors certainly didn’t know the After Dark show when they came up with theirs. But they did know After Dark’s Austrian precursor Club 2: development work on Big Brother took place in the Netherlands as 3Sat was spreading Club 2 across the continent, so it is just possible there is a connection.

At least, just in terms of Channel 4, it is a simple fact that the demise of After Dark in the 1990s was followed directly by ten years of Big Brother. Big Brother was big business for the network: the show once accounted for nearly three quarters of the money Channel 4 earned in an entire year. One does not have to be a fully fledged Leavisite to observe that the purpose of Big Brother was, nakedly and unashamedly, economic.

The fashion for such ‘reality’ television has shaped the media world we now take for granted, or at least eased certain pathological ways of thinking. ‘Reality’ shows create expectations of drama, or if not drama then constant incident, voyeurism, cruelty and cartoon conflict. This puts pressure on alternative ways of seeing, making some things harder to see, let alone the almost invisible things which were a speciality of After Dark.

Since then reality TV has become so formulaic participants increasingly come via agencies of so-called ‘real people’ who learn lines and act out scripted scenarios in what has modulated into ‘scripted reality’ (i.e. unreality).  Reality TV is eating itself, in fact television is eating itself, with the consequence that discussion and debate becomes no more than entertainment; the political becomes show business; the private and the personal becomes public and increasingly perverse; and someone who first became famous on a reality show is now the President of the United States of America.

In such a context, values like truth and freedom of speech are rendered utterly irrelevant, in a way which is truly beyond the postmodern.

In turn reality TV has been overtaken by what came along with multichannel TV – drizzle TV – now itself rapidly being supplanted by the infinite echo chamber of the internet, where everybody is talking (or at least “sharing”) but nobody seems to be listening. This endless sea of chatter, comment, opinion and gossip is the unanticipated outcome of what Brecht, 85 years ago, called for when he asked that radio be made “two-sided”, a shift from “distribution to communication”[28], or what we now call interactive media.

On After Dark we did what we could. We tried not to censor or manipulate, certainly we honoured whatever guests wanted to do, and just let things be said. Guests sat in a circle and so concentrated on each other rather than the cameras, and for the benefit of the watching audience at home, the participants were often filmed listening, a sight far more expressive than the faces we make when speaking. In fact After Dark gave such opportunities for listening that on occasion viewers even saw guests – slowly, perhaps only provisionally but nonetheless – changing their minds on air. Relearning how to listen seems a reasonable, apparently humble, but in fact perhaps no longer realistic, goal for any future media product of this kind.

Instead we now have Facebook and Twitter – debate in 140 characters – engineered in untransparent ways likely to limit rather than expand discourse[29], and so unsurprisingly leading to brutal reprisals to anything outside a specific space or experience. Freedom of speech seems now to mean only the freedom to agree. But who has the power; where does it lie; and is any of it coming back to the people? The public square and our right to speak our mind seems to have been privatised by some of the largest companies in the world. The corporations are hiding further back than before but are still taking the profits, as well as closing off options with algorithms predetermining what one will “like”.[30]

Is anything left on television, of television? As noted above Question Time is still going, still pretending to be live and still selling the terrible idea that there are only one or two ways of seeing any particular issue, the binary fallacy: Facebook ‘liking’ set in opposition to the debate-crowd sound of ‘not-liking’ (as against the polygons of position After Dark more quietly presented).

Against this background it is perhaps not so surprising that not a week goes by without some kindly soul suggesting it would be a good idea to bring back After Dark[31]. One appreciates the compliment, and it does seem that certain values promoted by After Dark – time, thought, freedom, open-mindedness, nuance – are in short supply in today’s media culture.

A political and social need may well exist but is ‘television’ – however adapted, extended, enhanced by later technologies – still an appropriate forum? The time for this kind of programme may well have passed, as the attention of the public splinters, having moved on from what was truly another age.[32] After Dark launched in 1987, when the UK’s viewing options were significantly less than now: not only was there no internet, there wasn’t even Channel 5, let alone dozens of separate networks covering different interests and even languages. Back then Crossroads was on four nights a week and Eastenders got an audience of over 30 million people on Christmas Day, which hasn’t happened anywhere recently, indeed that figure was down to 6 million for Christmas Day 2016, an 80% loss in 30 years.

Given budget, one could no doubt force something on to some channel, even if only as 24/7 internet. The problem would be that very few would be watching. As my former colleague, ex-LWT and Weekend World supremo David Cox, now a media commentator of distinction, writes:

“Once upon a time the elite controlled public discourse. Since the invention of the printing press, technology has been wresting this control away from them and redistributing it to the people. The internet has concluded this process. Now people can comunicate in any way they like. They can listen to the wisdom of the elite if they want. They don’t need Channel 4: there’s TED talks, The Conversation etc etc. But it turns out that they don’t want to. Now that they can all publish, that’s what they want to do. They don’t want to listen and they don’t want to debate; they want to express themselves, i.e. post a selfie on Instagram or a hate-tweet on Twitter. The potential audience won’t pay much attention because it wants to post its own high-velocity boasts and racist bile, not look at other people’s. But even a crumb of attention is enough. Being a little bit famous for 0.15 seconds turns out to be what people most want from communication. Some would like to blame capitalism for this because they don’t like capitalism, but it’s not capitalism’s fault. People are what we’ve now learned them to be and weren’t able to tell when they were gagged by the elite. They’re going to do what they like, electing Trump if they want to. Maybe they’ll find out the hard way that they were better off listening to the elite, maybe not. We’ll see.”[33]

Nevertheless assume something with the delicacy and low-key values of After Dark – its many kinds of participant bringing many complicated, even contradictory and often only partial or partisan, thoughts, feelings and witness – crept into the light, would any audience be interested? It is doubtful. Consider our immediate present and near future, consider what the teen audience – the adult audience of the day after tomorrow – is doing. Bluntly, teens are abandoning the TV habit for the smartphone and for streaming videos.[34] They show little awareness of anything ‘scheduled’, never mind it being, in that increasingly quaint phrase of broadcasters of my generation, ‘an appointment to view’.

The research shows this key change in behaviour had already begun to kick in by the millennium. Certainly by the time of After Dark’s brief re-emergence as a series on digital BBC in 2003, our impact was non-existent (and that was before Facebook, never mind the smartphone). The absence of any echoes whatsoever to our shouts in the darkness was eerie. Although our programmes were as good as any we had ever made, and were noticed from The Guardian to The Sun, no one heard, no one cared, no one stayed up with us, no one argued with each other after watching us, no one wrote or took action in response.[35]

After Dark was by then operating in a very different world. In the old days of monopolistic TV it was clear that a few more people might be induced to read Dostoevsky if he was delivered free with the milk, so Lord Reith’s brilliant construct of the BBC worked for his time and indeed for many decades after. But there are now few if any slots left on any boxes with anything like the same distributive power. Steam trains were nice too, once, but are not a helpful answer to today’s transportation needs; the same seems true of After Dark in today’s media climate.

Of course it is vital that the current limits of public discourse should be challenged and extended, and this task is increasingly urgent: there is, as they say in tv drama, no time to lose in working out how to do this. After Dark was not only about the conversation in the studio but also the conversation it engendered with viewers and therefore the wider society: the Austrian producer used to say that the programme only really began afterwards, when the viewers switched off the television and started to talk[36]. But since that time the mechanisms, the technology and the viewing patterns have fundamentally changed: few people take TV seriously any more, and when they do get round to watching, they tend to be electronically engaged elsewhere at the same time (emailing, tweeting, snapchatting, facebooking, even skyping).

So if television and After Dark are no longer sufficient for the purpose, what can now be done instead?

If one wants to tackle the problems of the new monopolies of today – Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter etc. – one will need to be as radically countercultural, as inventive and as thoughtful as the Viennese were when they devised Club 2[37]. And with that in mind, perhaps the real lesson of After Dark for today – drawing a direct historical analogy from what happened all those years ago – could be the following plan:

* Get sponsorship from a media monolith (back then ORF and C4, now Google-YouTube-Facebook-Twitter-etc)

* In order to build some kind of ingenious product (then Club 2 and After Dark, now what?)

* Which attracts enough people to be self-sustaining

* And along the way reveals the inbuilt problems of Google-YouTube-Facebook-Twitter-etc

* As well as hinting at alternative ways of responding to the world

* Until Google-YouTube-Facebook-Twitter-etc no longer find being systematically undermined to be a charming liberal proposition so as a result stop funding it[38].

Beyond going to the pub, putting away the smartphone and having a chat in real life (a good if not ground-breaking idea), maybe this notion might inspire someone out there quixotic enough to give it a go. Good luck!

 

[With thanks to colleagues past and present for their comments, in particular David Cox and Anne Whitehouse – and of course Jerome Kuehl, without whom After Dark would not have happened – and to Professor Christian Fuchs, for his kind invitation to address the Westminster scholarly community in March 2017.]

 

Sebastian Cody

Head of the production company Open Media

 

 

[1] Up to 13% of all UK adults – nearly 7 million people (BMRB Survey for Channel 4, 1988)

[2] “my favourite chat show” (‘Fascism on Four’, Socialist Worker, 4 June 1988); “one of the most inspired and effective uses of airtime yet devised” (Guardian, 1987); “the most intelligent, thought-provoking and interesting programme ever to have been on television” (Daily Mail, 9 May 1997); “A shining example of late-night television” (Daily Telegraph); “often made (the BBC’s) The Late Show” look like the Daily Mirror” (‘The Box’, Sight & Sound, 1 June 1997); “compulsive for late-night viewers” (‘Viewers in UK Hung in There’, Variety, January 1988))

[3] Listed in a Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_After_Dark_editions

[4] From homeless alcoholic Spider Wilson (details ibid, After Dark on 4 March 1988) and illegal immigrant “Cora” (20 August 1988) to former Prime Minister Edward Heath (10 June 1989 and 2 March 1991) and billionaire Adnan Khashoggi (2 March 1991)

[5] Isaac Evans (1 May 1987)

[6] Ex-jailbirds Nicholas van Hoogstraten (13 August 1988) and T Dan Smith (19 February 1988) to the socialites Claus von Bulow (13 September 1997) and Bianca Jagger (6 August 1988); once even an ex-jailbird socialite, the writer known as Taki (23 February 1991)

[7] Club 2 (so-called because it was broadcast on the second channel of the ORF).

[8]  On the night of 4th November 1989 the politician Edwina Currie appeared, truly live and unconstrained, on After Dark, while at exactly the same time the BBC transmitted her appearance on Question Time, recorded earlier that day but as usual announced as “live”. After Dark had fun with Currie’s apparent bilocation and the clash of realities.

[9] Broadcast magazine (19 May 2017)

[10] Stewart Butterfield, at the time C4 Director of Advertising, Sales and Marketing (public meeting, May 1996)

[11] After Dark  is detailed in a more than averagely accurate Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/After_Dark_(TV_series)

[12] 21 May 1988

[13] 3 July 1987

[14] 7 August 1993

[15] 7 October 1989

[16] 8 March 2003

[17] John Lotherington (private communication, 22 August 2017)

[18] 26 January 1991

[19] Appearing on a discussion about football (15 May 1987)

[20] To name just one example, crack enthusiast “Blue” (27 May 1989)

[21] A fuller account is available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/After_Dark_(TV_series)#Oliver_Reed_and

_Kate_Millett:_.22Do_Men_Have_To_Be_Violent.3F.22

[22] One edition – following immediately upon a live concert in Wembley – required transport by helicopter and private plane, as well as a police escort, to get all the guests to the studio at the same time (11 June 1988)

[23] The distinguished broadcast journalist David Akinsanya, formerly of After Dark, speaking from the floor at ‘The Unreality of Reality TV’ (University of Westminster seminar, 3 March 2017)

[24] Mark Duguid, Senior Curator, The BFI National Archive (BFI website www.bfi.org.uk/inview )

[25] ‘The Best of a Bad Job’ (The Times, 29 May 1989)

[26] Letter from the production company’s director Jerome Kuehl (The Observer, 15 September 1991)

[27] “wonder why they do not simply bring (After Dark) back as a weekly fixture. It is better than any of these would-be replacements” (Christopher Dunkley, The Financial Times, 3 December 1997)

[28] ‘Der Rundfunk als Kommunikationasapparat’ (Blaetter des Hessischen Landestheaters Darmstadt, nr. 16, July 1932)

[29] “(Facebook’s) logic is social: users are more likely to respond to what’s served to them by friends, family and members of their own filter-bubble in-group… links are often shared and retweeted by people who have not even read beyond the (often misleading) headline; and how often do most of us check the facts on something with which we’re already predisposed to agree?” (Sam Leith, Times Literary Supplement, 16 August 2017)

[30] Such algorithms, as is slowly coming to light, are starting to impact elections around the world. The main check and balance of democracy used to be the sheer scale of the electorate, the size of the vote (the crazies tending to cancel one another out or be swamped by the majority). However in the era of big – much bigger – data, scale turns out to be a gameable weakness, indeed a fatal yet essentially invisible one, a loophole exactly configured to allow for microtargeted gerrymandering.

[31] An unexpected aspect of the Westminster event was Professor Fuchs ending his talk with a public pitch for a new kind of After Dark format.

[32] “(After Dark) marks an experiment in the last phase of the ‘limited supply’ model of public service broadcasting, before extensive channel choice and multi-media patterns of use started to change both the aesthetics and times of television.” – ‘After Dark: Channel 4’s innovation in television talk’ (Lee and Corner, British Journal of Cinema and Television, 2017, in press)

[33] David Cox (private communication, 3 March 2017)

[34] Teenagers and children are watching a third less broadcast TV on traditional sets than they were in 2010’ – Ofcom ‘Public Service Broadcasting Annual Report 2017’ (reported in The Guardian, 7 July 2017)

[35] The very last After Dark programme ended, appropriately enough perhaps, with a plug for the campaign for a screen-free ‘TV Turnoff Week’ (‘Iraq: Truth and Lies?’, BBC4, 29 March 2003)

[36] Peter Huemer (private communication, 1986)

[37] Club 2 was something of a luxury product, reflecting the high-levels of TV funding available in those days (mid 1970s). The programme benefited from an expensive development period at ORF, which spent six months piloting alternatives to the US-derived late-night entertainment chat then arriving on German television, before settling on the Club 2 format.

[38] As happened, first to Club 2 on ORF, and then later to After Dark on Channel 4. A portent of things to come is this week’s important New York Times story about Google’s corporate behaviour (see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/30/us/politics/eric-schmidt-google-new-america.html)


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